Best-selling fantasy novel was born of theater training

Erin Morgenstern, a painter with a theater degree, began writing as a diversion.
Erin Morgenstern, a painter with a theater degree, began writing as a diversion.

The circus appears at night, without warning. From sunset to sunrise, the ethereal Cirque des Rêves is a circus like no other. Visitors to this 19th-century magical traveling circus amble the colorful lanes between rows and rows of black-and-white tents, each of which contains a marvelously imaginative wonder: a contortionist who folds herself into a tiny glass box, a garden of ice, magicians facing off in surreal duels.

This is The Night Circus, the debut novel by Erin Morgenstern, who will read from and sign her book in Lexington and Northern Kentucky this week.

Published late last year by Doubleday, The Night Circus is aiming to be the next fantasy novel to sweep readers off their feet a la Harry Potter or Twilight. Since its release, the book has received a wide and popular reception, with fans showing up to book signings in the circus' signature colors — black, white and red — or dressed as circus performers.

The novel debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list when it was released last fall.

Morgenstern never set out to become a best-selling author. A painter with a theater degree from Smith College, she began participating in National Novel Writing Month, a project that encourages writers to finish a novel in a month, in 2003 because she "thought it might be fun."

"It was a really good exercise for me because it forced me to keep going," says Morgenstern, who lives in Massachusetts. "I wouldn't like everything I wrote, but I might like one page every 10 pages or so, and that was sort of how I taught myself to write."

The seeds for The Night Circus were planted not in her first couple of years participating in NaNoWriMo, as the project is called in writing circles, but in 2005, when she began with the image of a magical circus.

"The way I write is I'm not thinking too much about what the book is going to look like as a whole," Morgenstern says. "I'm sort of digging through my imagination — it's like fictional excavating. Writing that much in that short amount of time, you find different things when you've written 30,000 words than 5,000. It's a good method for me to come up with raw material to work from."

Morgenstern began imagining the tents in The Night Circus — the sights, the smells, the visual world — before she introduced her characters.

Even though she says she was "burned out on theater" after college, her stage background influenced her literary development in style and theme.

Take the circus itself.

"It's almost like a combination between a theatrical presentation and a museum," Morgenstern says. "A lot of it comes from my personal preferences coming from a theater background. I am fond of footlights and red velvet curtains and entertainment, that relationship between the performer and audience that no other experience can capture."

The novel has received praise for its filmic qualities, and one of Morgenstern's admitted strengths as a writer is her ability to describe settings and events.

"I picture everything like how I would stage it, how it would sound, what lighting would look like in scenes. I think having a theatrical background helps completely with having a full sensory experience," she says. "I think through each scene from each character's perspective the way an actor would."

As Morgenstern built her imaginary world, she began populating it with characters.

"Most of the time, my characters show up in my head fully formed with personalities and quirks," she says. "It takes me a while to get to know them and find out their secrets, but I have a sense of them almost immediately."

Morgenstern's cast includes mysterious magician archrivals Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A.H., whose real name is never revealed. The two are engaged in a secret battle via their children, Celia and Marco, whom they are secretly training to magically compete against each other. Of course, Celia and Marco fall in love, and the implications are dangerous for the entire circus.

The Night Circus aims to enchant, but it has a dark side, which is revealed in the magicians' conflict and their offsprings' forbidden love affair. Prospero the Enchanter cuts Celia's fingers again and again, so she can learn how to heal them with magic.

"It seems very cruel," Morgenstern says, "but in his mind he's using it as an exercise to make her stronger. It's a means to a necessary end because the stronger she is, the better she'll fare in competition. It all makes perfect sense to him, even though Celia herself doesn't understand."

The magic in Morgenstern's world is not clearly explained in a literal sense, but she wanted to convey that it takes much skill and effort.

"I didn't want it to be as simple as wand-waving," she says, "I wanted it to be something that required a lot of effort. I like the idea of nature versus nurture."

Celia has a natural gift for magic, but Marco, her love interest and unwitting enemy, is an example of meticulous training. Who wins the battle? You'll have to read The Night Circus to find out.

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